Parachurch, or Quasi-church?
Parachurch organizations have played an important role in my spiritual pilgrimage. At one time or another my spiritual growth has been accelerated by the work of the Row Bible Study at the University of Southern California, Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and the Navigators. Their Bible studies, small group materials, quiet time aids, and evangelistic tools have been invaluable. Also a host of non-denominational publishers have placed in my hands the best of Christian literature: Banner of Truth, Zondervan, Baker, Eerdmans, Crossway, and (again) InterVarsity, just to name the most obvious.
In addition, it is obvious to me that a number of parachurch organizations have filled a vacuum left by the negligence of the church. The church wasn’t evangelizing the campus, so groups like Campus Crusade stepped in. The church wasn’t teaching doctrine, so groups like Ligonier stepped in. The church (especially the mainline church) wasn’t teaching the Bible, so groups like the Bible Study Fellowship stepped in. These and other organizations have filled the void created by the failure of the church to fulfill its commission. If much of the vital spiritual action has been outside of the church in the last 75 years, it largely is because the church has been irresponsible.
However, this has led to an obvious problem: There is a tendency for the parachurch to become a quasi-church. In other words, the tendency is for the parachurch to become the functioning church of its participants. It becomes the hub around which the Christian lives of its participants revolve. It is the place to which its people go for fellowship and instructions. It’s “members” are the people to which its participants go in time of crisis. The Bible study, the discipleship group, the prayer group becomes their church. They may still attend a church, yet functionally the parachurch has supplanted the church. The vital spiritual action, the deepest spiritual commitments, the richest Christian fellowship are found outside of the church. This even can happen through the internet. An interactive blog can become one’s fellowship group. Recordings of sermons can become one’s regular diet of preaching. One can, and some are, settling for a “virtual church.”
Is there a problem with this? Some think not, as long as one is sincerely seeking to follow Christ. "As long as one is experiencing fellowship, instruction, and outreach," they ask, "does it really matter where? How can it be bad? If people are studying the Bible; if they are praying together; if they are seeking Christian fellowship; why complain?" Seems odd that we should raise an objection.
The problem is the parachurch is not the church. That is why these associations and organizations are called “para” church, meaning “along-side” the church. They are not meant to replace the church. They are not meant to supplant the church. They are not equipped to replace the church. They are meant to aid and assist the church. Their effect should not be to siphon off the church’s best people. Their impact should not be to consume the time and energies of the most committed church members to the detriment of the church itself.
However, too often this has been the case. The local church often has been weakened by the presence of the parachurch. Who can say if the net result has been positive or negative? We know the positives of parachurch organizations. However, if all those whose attention has been occupied by the parachurch had been pouring their time and energy into the local church, into its burden-bearing fellowship, its body-strengthening teaching, and its soul-saving outreach, what difference might that have made?
Jesus made promises to His church (Mt 16:18, 19; 18:18-20; 28:20; Lk 24:49; Acts 1:8, 9). He made no particular promises to parachurch organizations. Just as important, there are qualities of the church that the parachurch cannot duplicate and for that reason it cannot replace the church. The parachurch cannot administer the sacraments. Low-church Protestants have at times disparaged the sacraments and denied their importance. However, this makes no sense in light of the Bible. The “Great Commission” itself includes baptism (Mt 28:19)! The Apostle Paul associates the Lord’s Supper with fellowship, koinonia with Christ (1 Cor 10:16) and describes it as “spiritual food and… spiritual drink” (1 Cor 10:3, 4). Can these be neglected without loss?
Moreover, the parachurch cannot obligate mutual care and commitment. The church is a covenant community. It always has been a community constituted by covenant, Old Testament and New Testament. One is admitted into it by a covenant sign and vows (circumcision in the Old Testament, baptism in the New) and sustained in it by a covenant meal (Passover in the Old Testament, the Lord’s Supper in the New). A sacramentum, by definition, was a form of oath-taking required by Roman soldiers. It was the term intentionally chosen by early Christians (Tertullian coined the term) to indicate the covenantal nature of these two Christian ordinances. The point is, members are pledged by oath to support and care for each other.
By way of contrast, parachurch participants come and go as they please. The parachurch cannot duplicate the diversity of the church (strong and weak believers, rich and poor believers, cool and uncool believers, etc.), and so cannot duplicate the problematic quality of our mutual commitment. I must commit myself in the church to people quite unlike myself, who at times I may find undesirable, at least by worldly standards. The parachurch is self-selecting. The church is not. I need the diversity of the church, because it forces me to say "no" to self and to serve without regard to advantages to be gained.
Finally, the parachurch cannot require submission to leadership. God has not authorized parachurch leadership to require the submission of other believers to their organization. God does not require members of parachurch organizations to be accountable spiritually to leadership and to one another. Yet God does require both submission and accountability in the church quite unambiguously:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13:17)
Members of the church “obey” and “submit” while leaders “keep watch.” Leaders are to “shepherd the flock of God… exercising oversight… being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:2-3). Members are to “respect” leaders who are “over them” and “admonish” them (1 Thess 5:12).
This pattern of submission – accountability cannot and should not be duplicated in the parachurch. Yet under the guise of “mentoring” we see more and more of this happening. Outside of ecclesiastical authority, outside of the direction of church officers, self-appointed mentors are exercising heavy-handed guidance over other believers. To whom are these mentors accountable? No one.
Don’t let the parachurch become a quasichurch. Don’t let it become the unit of fellowship. Don’t let it become the source of instruction. Don’t let it become the agent of accountability. Don’t let it divert time and energy away from the church. We need the church.
The parachurch has filled a void and done considerable good. However, without the church, the parachurch has nothing to stand alongside of. Truth be known, as an organization, it needs the church as much as each of us do individually.
Terry L. Johnson has been the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA for 33 years. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
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Editor's Note: This article was originally published on ReformationToday.org. Used with permission from the author.